Those brave boys in Korea are cannon fodder for director Robert Altman. Those immortal, scribbled words that sat on a desk in his home, are engraved in history. “Fuck it, I’ll do it,” he wrote when asked to direct M*A*S*H. His distaste for the novel it was based on, paired with his fresh filmmaking legs made for a rough ride through a war that had ended nearly two decades ago. There was, of course, another war on at the time over in Vietnam, and the concern studios and producers had for what that meant for the contemporary appeal of M*A*S*H was palpable. Altman must have known, for while his efforts here may focus on the horrors of Korea, they instil the tragedies of the contemporary world around him and his ensemble cast.
From its opening moments, M*A*S*H sets out to shock and horrify its audience. As a bloodied soul of combat is carried off to a medical base, the light chimes and crooning from Johnny Mandel make for a great disparage. Its subject may be as bleak and disgusted as the film Altman turns in here, but Altman does not wish to make those chirpy notes flutter up even when depicting the camaraderie between these serving soldiers. That shot of the beaten and broken bodies flying over the forests only lasts for the opening credits, but Altman sets the scene with stunning, hard to swallow meaningfulness. But for every compelling moment that is formed from this spectacle of war, Altman struggles to swallow the other, inevitable pill of adaptation.
He is tasked with bringing meaning to a dated script. Some of the jokes and throwaway lines do not settle well, but the notes and performances that surround them do well to cover up those patchy problems. Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland, in particular, are thoroughly graceful on the screen. If Altman and his ensemble hope to capture the tenacity of war and the bleak hilarity of hard-headed officers, then he does so well. Their routine is fixing up those on the frontlines. They are no longer terrified or disturbed by the wounds they see or the death that surrounds them. That is the package deal they have been offered, and they make do with what they can. Altman captures that with tenacity.
Considering he would go on to make McCabe and Mrs. Miller and The Long Goodbye soon after, it is reassuring to see so many of the essential components of the Altman craze here. One of the many to poke at Vietnam and satirize it, M*A*S*H is either a poorly-aged trendsetter that launched a great many careers, or a solid satire whose issues of ageing without grace can be overlooked for the dependable performances within. Either way, it is hard not to acknowledge the impact this feature has had, not just because of what it wished to comment on, but also how it went about doing it. Harsh words and portrayals of those who take war as a career opportunity, and not a risk. But with that, Altman and his cast capture the fear of many a soldier. “I now close my military career and just fade away,” and that is all they can do should they survive. Few are reviled in honour; many are lost to time. Altman displays that earnestly, but does not explore it much further than a respectable frankness.